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Back when I was in Catholic elementary school and in the Boy Scouts we would often be enlisted to participate in fund- raising drives that had us going door-to- door in our neighbourhoods, collecting money for various charities or causes (school or church related projects, scouting trips, etc). Engaging in this exercise, year after year, taught us some lessons about human behaviour.
We learned that there were those kind and generous souls who would give, and there were those who would not. Among the latter, we took note of those who would simply say “no”, which was fine. But then there were those who would feel the need to make up all kinds of excuses for not giving. A line we heard all too often was, “I already gave at the office”. What we knew was that in saying this, the individual in question was merely attempting to avoid giving, while at the same time pretending that he really wasn’t cheap or heartless.
We almost always knew that this “gave at the office” line was a fabrication, since the charities for which we were raising funds didn’t collect “at the office”, relying instead on our door-to-door solicitations. Because this “little fib” was used so often, and not just in my hometown, it has entered our everyday discourse as an expression which is understood to mean ‘a made up excuse on which one relies in order to avoid doing what one was being asked to do’.
I was reminded of just how annoying it could be to hear this “little fib” earlier this week when I read an interview Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu gave to The Jerusalem Post. At one point in the exchange, the interviewer pressed Netanyahu on whether or not he would consider agreeing to a new “settlement freeze” in order help restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu’s response was a short, but telling: “I think we already gave at the office.”
A few thoughts occurred to me as I read the interview. At first, I waxed indignant as I recalled how my disingenuous and dismissive neighbours would try to put me off using this same overused and very transparent lie. And then I thought, how interesting that this flippant man, who prides himself on his fluency and his debating skills, could make such an obvious mistake — using an expression that actually means its opposite.
Finally, I wondered whether Netanyahu misspoke at all. Maybe, I thought, he actually meant just what he said, as in, ‘I’ve been getting away with this ruse for years now, so go away and leave me be. I didn’t give before and won’t give this time either.’
In the rest of the interview Netanyahu forcefully argued why he will continue to build where, when, and how he pleases. And given recent events, he clearly feels emboldened to continue on this path. This was evidenced by the announcement, made shortly after he returned from the UN in New York, that Israel would build 1,100 new housing units in Gilo, a settlement built on confiscated West Bank land that Israel illegally “annexed” to Jerusalem.
Netanyahu returned from the UN sessions believing himself to have won a great victory. He had helped to manufacture a crisis mood in Israel over the Palestinian statehood bid. Israelis were told that a UN vote would be “doomsday”. Of course, it was not, nor would it ever have been. But having trumped up a phony crisis, and survived, Netanyahu returned to Israel “a conquering hero”.
I can almost imagine his mental processes at work: ‘No one stops me, Binyamin Netanyahu. In the 1990s, I was elected prime minister on a platform that promised to end the Oslo peace process, and I did it. I was forced by president Clinton to go to talks at the Wye River Plantation and forced to sign an agreement with the Palestinians. But I beat them all, because I refused to implement what I signed. I was told by Clinton not to destroy Jabal Abul- Ghanaim, the last green hill between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. And now on that hill stands Har Homa, a city of 18,000 settlers, with more due to come. All those settlements the US once called “illegitimate” and the EU called “illegal” are now called “accepted realities” by the US and EU. Remember the “outposts”, built on the hilltops we illegally seized after Wye, that we were repeatedly told to dismantle? We promised on a number of occasions that we would remove them, but we delayed, knowing that time was on our side. We’ve since built roads connecting them to our highways and linked them to our electric grid and those “outposts” are still there and are flourishing.’
‘Then came my second term as prime minister and a new US president who told me to freeze settlements. After dithering a bit, I pretended to agree (even while I continued to build). And I got away with it. Using my allies in Washington and my friends in the Congress, I stood down the president of the United States. I have the US Congress eating out of my hand; Republican candidates for president are attacking Obama for “throwing me under the bus”, and now that the Americans are in an election year the White House apparently believes that they have no choice but to praise me and support me. And if this were not enough, I just stood down the entire United Nations. So I’m feeling pretty good right now. So go away and don’t bother me “I already gave at the office”.’
Am I bothered by the arrogance of the man, and his transparent disingenuousness? You bet I am. And am I bothered that the man who, just this past week, president Clinton charged was responsible for “ending the peace process” is at it again? Yes, again. But as troubled as I am at Netanyahu’s behaviour, I am also deeply disturbed that because of America’s dysfunctional politics, we are enabling and puffing up this “little fibber”.
Netanyahu didn’t “give at the office” and he didn’t give at the door. He’s been playing us for fools for decades now and we’re letting him get away with it. And the longer this goes on, the dimmer the prospects for peace and the weaker America looks in the eyes of the world.
James Zogby is president of the Arab American Institute.